Jim Beam column:Disaster aid far short of needs

Published 7:29 am Sunday, October 3, 2021

Reading about the disaster aid approved by Congress, which came up short and a year late for the storm-battered residents of Southwest Louisiana, reminded me of a Jerry Reed song titled, “She Got the Goldmine, I Got the Shaft.”

Calcasieu Parish Police Jury President Brian Abshire and Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter summed up the disaster aid situation well. And it’s abundantly clear that most members of the Louisiana congressional delegation failed to get us the help we needed when we needed it.

Abshire said the help local officials were hoping for, and had been promised, is “nowhere to be found. This feel-good bill makes no one but the federal politicians actually feel good, and it will do very little for Calcasieu Parish.”

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Hunter said, “When you look at other singular hurricanes over the last 20 years and the billions of dollars that have flowed down to those communities, $600 million is crumbs.” He is talking about the $600 million Southwest Louisiana is expected to get to help homeowners get back into their homes.

Housing needs total around $900 million. And that doesn’t take into account the damages from the February winter storm and the May 17 flooding in Lake Charles.

“That ($600 million) will put a small dent in housing,” Hunter said. “I’m thankful it’s something, but it’s just really like a punch in the gut. It makes you feel like we’re less American.”

Gov. John Bel Edwards is definitely not on the same page as Abshire and Hunter. In a statement, Edwards said Southwest Louisiana will finally get funding it deserved following Hurricanes Laura and Delta last year. If Abshire and Hunter are correct, the funding isn’t going to come close.

The governor also thanked the state’s congressional delegation for supporting this aid, “which is a good start to kicking Louisiana’s long-term recovery into gear.” Time may prove he’s right about the aid, but two members of the congressional delegation voted against the bill.

Edwards also thanked the White House, which is probably good politics. However, former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden both promised aid that never came to this area in time.

Jeremy Alford in “LaPolitics Weekly” said the two members of the congressional delegation who voted against the disaster funding are House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, and U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson, vice chair of the House Republican Conference. They were obviously protecting their leadership positions with the GOP hierarchy.

Alford said their votes could be tough to justify back home. Scalise represents an area hit hard by Hurricane Ida. Homeowners there may also come up short of what they need.

U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, R-Port Barre, who represents this area, voted for the disaster funding bill, but his influence in Congress is something like zero to none. Why, for example, have we had to wait so terribly long and then get only “peanuts” from the bill?

It isn’t because responsible officials weren’t asking. Hunter and other elected officials have repeatedly asked for federal aid. They heard responses and promises from presidents and members of Congress for many months.

Hunter said it appears there won’t be any money available for economic revitalization and infrastructure, two major components needed to recover from a major natural disaster.

Members of Congress did work together to come up with a $1 trillion infrastructure bill that could help the entire country revitalize roads, bridges, ports and airports. However, it, too, is tied up because of political infighting.

U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., worked on the bipartisan infrastructure bill and voted with Democrats to pass it in the Senate. He believes it will create jobs, improve commuting, provide flood protection, extend broadband and help with coastal restoration.

Unfortunately, U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., and the state’s five Republican House members plan to vote against the bill.

Petty politics explains why Hunter said, “I’m pretty exasperated and worn out from this whole process. I thought we would be so much further along than we are. When we talk about disappointment, it’s not for City Hall or me — it’s for the citizens and small business owners out there who are struggling.”

Despite their major disappointment about insufficient disaster aid, Abshire and Hunter had encouraging words for those they represent. Abshire said, “We will continue to fight for what our residents need, and, frankly, what our residents deserved a year ago.”

Hunter said, “It’s very disheartening and a little depressing to know we are going to have to pivot as local leadership. The process and recovery is going to take longer, but we will do what we always do —  find a way.”